IF YOU WAKE UP one morning with a headache, you might assume that you drank one glass of wine too many the previous night, or that the heat was up too high, or that you are coming down with a cold. You are less likely to jump to the conclusion that you have a brain tumor. But when you find yourself forgetting things, then, omigosh, it must be the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Men and women who are middle-aged—or older, especially—are quick to diagnose themselves with inevitable dementia.

There is no need to panic if, lately, you have forgotten an appointment or a friend's birthday or where you placed your keys. The reasons for memory lapses are usually much less dire than suspected. Almost any form of stress or emotional pressure can cause memory problems—a well-documented fact that many people never consider. Figuring out the source of stress, and relieving it, can work wonders.

Lessen Overload

Stress, especially mental overload, is often responsible for memory deficits. Conflict at work, crises at home, worrying about friends, too much to do and lack of free time—all these conditions can prompt the brain to shut down to spare itself from exhaustion. One of the first functions that may be minimized is memory.

Attempting to cure the problem by undergoing intensive memory training, as many people do, or undergoing medical tests for dementia may be completely misguided. The extra work and the associated worry increase mental tension further, making the memory problem worse—thereby reinforcing the suspicion that a terrible disorder is raising its ugly head. Instead of looking to beef up your brain, your time would be better spent ferreting out sources of psychological stress and trying to ease them. If job requirements are overwhelming, design ways to reduce them. If a personal relationship is troubled, consider counseling. When general stress is high, relaxation techniques such as yoga or tai chi can ease your body and mind and liberate memory.

If you want a personalized explanation for what appears to be inexplicable memory deterioration, then you might go to a memory clinic. Specialists will conduct a detailed interview using psychological and physical tests to determine whether you have a memory problem at all—and if so, why. A neurologist will test reflexes and defense mechanisms to see whether you have any physical problems. Psychological tests will assess whether you can draw conclusions adeptly, handle numbers correctly and name particular objects. Temporal and spatial orientation tasks will test your abstract thinking, judgment, and verbal and mathematical abilities as well as your ability to draw geometric figures. The exercise shown on this page at the right is an example of such a test. All these indicators can help identify memory problems—or assuage concerns about them.

Drink More Fluids

In addition to stress, other routine conditions can affect the brain's recollections. Although some trouble with memory or recall is common as people reach their 60s and beyond, these challenges need not be accepted as unavoidable. Sometimes simple lifestyle changes can be helpful, even for 90-year-olds. A variety of physiological changes can cause memory impairments; for example, exceptionally high or low blood pressure or the onset of metabolic diseases such as diabetes can be contributors.

By examining an older person's general state of health, a geriatric specialist can determine whether aging may be the root of certain problems. Doctors are discovering seemingly minor changes that can bring about significant memory improvement. For instance, many elderly people have substantial fluid deficits or vitamin and mineral deficiencies, simply because they do not drink or eat enough or do not consume the right foods. An elderly man may consume little else but bread and cake only because a bakery is right around the corner and the supermarket is too far to reach on foot. A varied diet and lots of fluids can improve health—and memory.

An array of neurological and psychiatric conditions can lead to problems, too. Depression in old age brought on by loneliness, mild psychosis or personality disorder can impair memory. Yet physicians may be too quick to attribute the forgetfulness to Alzheimer's.

Occasionally, routine medications can create difficulties. Women who have trouble sleeping during their menopausal years may begin using sleeping pills and may continue using them for years thereafter. As they age, it can take longer for the active substance to dissipate in the body after waking, causing general drowsiness that complicates recall.

Simple expectations may be to blame for “bad” memory. In recent years tremendous attention has been focused by the media on issues of memory loss and Alzheimer's, capturing public interest. Overly sensitized, people tend to find deficiencies everywhere. Just because you cannot recall the answer to the ultimate question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? does not mean you are succumbing to incipient dementia; at most, it may mean that you need to brush up on your trivia. In the end, physical and mental exercise, a healthy diet, proper rest and, above all, stress reduction are the best ways to keep your memory sharp as you grow older.